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Sunday Afternoons with Georges Enesco

Posted: August 31, 2013 - 5:58pm

When Georges Enesco and I were boys in northern Romania, we spent our summers exploring the soft Moldavian hills and plains that spread out from the banks of the Siret.  On Sundays after Mass, after the family dinners, a group of us boys with Georges in the lead would wander out to where the itinerant Romani traders camped, and we’d sit under the great walnut trees out of sight beyond the camp’s makeshift corral and talk and play cards and wait for the long summer light to shade into evening.  

Then, as Venus emerged in the darkening sky, the Gypsies began building their campfires and the music started: low at first, some distant guitar chords, a violin tuning up, some people singing.  As the fires drew the cool darkness down around the camp, the fiddles and accordions began whirling in earnest, guitars galloping in staccato rhythm, singers and horns wailing — all reeling out into the dark, the wildness of the music accentuated by whinnying grace notes from the corral. 

I began listening to Georges Enesco’s own music by accident in my 20s.  Browsing a discount record bin in some department store, I discovered West Meets East, a collaboration between Indian composer Ravi Shankar and American violinist Yehudi Menuhin.  Side One comprised three Indian ragas with Shankar on sitar, his sideman Alla Rakha on the tabla, and Menuhin on violin.  Menuhin’s violin seemed out of place in this music, making only for interminable cacophony.  Imagining Side Two to be more of this unlistenable stuff, I slid the record back into its jacket and slipped the LP onto the shelf where it languished for years somewhere between the Rolling Stones and the Who.

Then, one lazy Sunday afternoon in the mid-1980s when my wife and young sons were out visiting in-laws, I found myself alone at the apartment and needed some music.  Bored with my other LPs, I pulled out the dusty dust jacket of West Meets East.  Side Two listed only one piece, Georges Enesco’s Sonata No. 3 in A Minor for piano and violin, with Hephzibah Menuhin accompanying her illustrious brother on piano and Ravi Shankar nowhere in sight.  I put on Side Two and stretched out on the sofa.

I woke up to late afternoon sunlight streaming in the window and the music still playing, this music exquisitely classical in form (Enesco studied classical composition with the master of French song, Gabriel Faure), but with Romanian folk music’s wild temper; I woke up to this music like my life, hurrying to begin, hurrying to end, at once timeless and mercilessly ephemeral: as Yeats says, “eternal beauty wandering on her way.”

After that, I looked for more of Enesco’s music and found a recording of the man himself playing violin — on Poéme, a piece for piano and violin by French composer Ernest Chausson.  On that recording from 1929, the “background noise” isn’t in the background at all; even on CD, contemporary noise-reduction technology hardly makes a dent.  But as a friend once quipped in comparing the sound of old analog recordings to modern digital, clean is over-rated.  Enesco’s violin emerges brilliantly through the noise.  And, truthfully, over the years that I’ve been listening to this record, all the snap, crackle, and pop of that old 1929 recording have come to seem as much a part of the accompaniment as the piano. 

Years flash by without an afternoon listening to Enesco.  But sooner or later I find my way back and spend another afternoon lost in music as moving as ever, though more and more distant from those Sunday afternoons when the kids were young and time seemed far away.

Time seems nearer now.  But sometimes still on a lazy afternoon, I put Enesco on the stereo and relax, and nap, and wake again to my imagined friendship with this foreign and feral music.  And in those short waking moments, Georges Enesco and I are forever at play in the long summer light of those long-ago Sunday afternoons.

A native of New Jersey, Jim Hale has lived in Juneau for 18 years and is a parishioner at St. Paul’s Catholic Church. He has never been to Romania.

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